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The Way it Was
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 • Posted November 28, 2012

I have written a few weeks ago about some of the unusual coinage and denominations that were a part of our American past but are no longer minted, and have not been for over a hundred years. Coins such as the half cent, the three cent silver “trime” and the two cent piece were made from the early 1800’s until the 1870’s at different times, but are a novelty today. One the other hand, most every adult, and many youngsters have seen or remember holding “silver dollars”, even though the latest Eisenhower dollars and Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars were not made of silver. The most common silver dollar was the Morgan dollar that was minted from 1878 to 1921 followed by the Peace dollar that was from 1921 to 1935 and those were made from real silver. Although silver was taken out of our coins in 1964 (more about that in a later column) if you have any one of these old silver dollars they contain about 71% silver and with the price of silver around $34 this week that makes them worth much more than just a dollar. And they might be worth even more on the collector’s market so treat them well.

But if we go back much further in history, we can ask “what did a dollar look like before the United States mint began making them?” Silver money has been around since the ancient Greeks, so there certainly were “dollars” before 1776 when the colonies broke away from England and even the new United States government did not get a mint started right away. The first authorization for coinage by the new country did not come into effect until the Mint Act of April 2, 1792 and it was a couple more years before the mint first made a silver dollar. The first were made in 1794 and the design was changed in 1795 and again in 1798, but after 1804 the mint did not make any Dollars again until 1836 because there just was not a great demand in those days. The reason was that the Spanish, with the resources of the Mexican silver mines has been making a silver Dollar size coin since 1732 and were dominating the world financial markets for accepted commercial coins with many millions of them in circulation.

The silver 8 Reales coins minted in Mexico City were the same size and weight that was adopted by the early United States government, and were accepted as legal tender for purchases for many years before the American revolution. They continued to be a regular part of the American financial system for decades after the new mint first made dollars and were accepted for full value until the Coinage Act of 1857 finally demonetized them. I have found these 8 Reales coins to be among my favorite coin to collect, and because they were made in such large quantities they are still reasonably easy to find in good shape even after 250 years or more.

These early “silver dollars” are distinctive, and the style was not changed from 1732 until they were replaced with coins showing the monarch’s profile in 1772. Prior to them, one ounce silver “cobs” were made by hammering a lump of silver with a punch showing the national shield of Spain on one side and a design showing the date and assayer’s initials on the other. In 1732 and 1733 another style was tried where a bar of silver was trimmed to one ounce size and then stamped with a clear pattern on both sides, but that was still too labor intensive. In 1733 the Mexico City mint first introduced milled coinage where a blank of the right diameter and thickness was run through a mill that impressed a consistent design and introduced the type of coins and manufacturing processes we know even to this day.

These first milled 8 Reales coins had a pair of globes showing the extent of the Spanish empire, flanked on either side by two crowned columns representing the pillars of Hercules at the straits of Gibraltar, with a wave pattern under the design. There was a Latin motto, the date at the very bottom and a “M” topped by an “o” representing the Mexico City mint. The reverse had the crowned shield of the Spanish monarch, with his name on one side and the legend “Hispan et Ind” signifying that the Indies and all of Mexico and the lands surrounding the Gulf were colonies of Spain. There was also the assayers/minter’s initials and the numeral 8 signifying the denomination (replaced by 4, 2 and 1 on coins of smaller denominations). Coins that looked like this were made from the silver the Spanish had discovered in Mexico and many, many millions were minted and shipped all over the world to be used in commerce for well over a century.

There is more to this story, full books have been written just about it, but one of the most interesting points for me is that these were the common coin of Mexico even well beyond its revolution from Spain in 1821. Therefore since the land that became Texas was just a province of Mexico until San Jacinto in 1836, these were the official coins of Texas for the first hundred years of our existence. Today we think of Texas as a very independent state, even within the United States, but for many years we were governed and controlled by Spain and then Mexico and these coins remind me that what I take for granted today is relatively new and has not been the way it always was in the past. If you would like to see an assortment of the coinage mentioned in this article, and would even like to hold a coin from the Spanish colonial days when Texas was just a frontier province of the government in Mexico City, stop by Red Door Antiques on any Friday or Saturday in December when we are open between 10:00 and 4:00pm and I will be glad to share. Remember that what we see today is the product of all that our ancestors had before, and with a bit of digging you can uncover the secrets and fascinating history of ... the way it was.

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